Buzzy Belmont Shore is that rare thing in southern California – a neighbourhood where you can live and walk (rather than drive) to your local cafes and shops. It’s a beach-side enclave of quirky architecture, good eats, and better shopping – a top location for a day out.
Long Beach, a city built around the second busiest container port in the US, has always dwelt in the shadow of neighbouring Los Angeles (only about a half hour drive away). While offering a pleasant enough Californian seafront – with the added interest of the four artificial islands just offshore built to conceal oil wells – its modest charms were obscured for many by the deprivations of some of its neighbourhoods.
Upmarket islands of their own are the neighbourhoods of Belmont Shore and adjoining super-wealthy Naples. Found at the southern tip of Long Beach, a quick left off of Pacific Coast Highway onto Second Street will take you over a bridge that carries you above the beach-lined inland waterway and into Belmont Shore’s lively, palm-divided main artery.
The bright jostle of Belmont Shore’s high street is an eclectic blend of dive bar and gourmet cheese shop, clothes boutiques and ice cream bars. Second Street is a browsing paradise, with fine dining restaurants and gourmet pizza joints on hand to keep your strength up. Take a side road away from the commercial melee, and you enter streets of charismatic cottages (deceptively small, as they’re long rather than wide), the locals chilling out front as the sea breeze ruffles the leaves of the banana trees and eucalyptus.
The beach you’ll arrive at if you keep walking – from which Long Beach takes its name – is broad and flat and often windy, best enjoyed while walking/skating/cycling along the promenade, either north into the city’s heart or jinking your way to the wine bars and galleries of the 4th Street arts district and Retro Row. But the buzz remains in Belmont Shore as the sun sinks behind the silhouettes of the rocky breakwater and the port’s stacked container ships. The streetside tables quickly fill up, the accordion busker packs up, and the neon signs spark into life.
Catering to the conference market at the nearby convention centre, the Renaissance Long Beach (111 E Ocean Blvd) – located in the heart of Downtown – offers a comfortable, business hotel stay (breakfast not included) sited amid numerous restaurants and bars (there are restaurants in the hotel, but they’re pricey). It’s a good half hour walk from Belmont Shore, but grab a rental bike from Long Beach Bike Share and you can quickly whiz along the beachfront and be in the thick of things in about fifteen minutes.
One of the major sights along the waterfront is the retired RMS Queen Mary (1126 Queens Highway) – the former flagship of the Cunard Line. Today the museum ship acts as a hub for all manner of events – including an annual Halloween party – and also doubles as an Art Deco-style floating hotel. Peer out of your porthole at the dazzling smog-enhanced SoCal sunset and settle into the warm, wood panelling of the mid-century cabins. There are onboard restaurants – a B&B package is available – or you can disembark for the evening and walk five minutes into the city.
The Beachrunners’ Inn B&B (231 Kennebec Avenue) is a quirky and charming B&B located about a half hour walk along the beach from Belmont Shore. Family-run out of a well-kept Craftsman-style home, the Beachrunners’ Inn also offers a complimentary ‘expanded continental breakfast’ that includes eggs, bacon, oatmeal, fruit and pastries (and is generally described as ‘delicious’). The B&B is lacking in A/C but is close enough to the ocean to benefit from sea breezes. Cosy and convenient for public transport or taxi-hailing if you don’t fancy the walk.
Restaurants, Bars & Cafes
Like a mobster wearing a heavy double-breasted suit on a hot summer’s day, Domenico’s (5339 E. 2nd Street) interior is surprisingly shadowy as you step in from the bright sidewalk. But once your eyes adjust, you can make out the intimate booths with the pizzas hovering above the tables on their metal stands. With a strong claim to being Long Beach’s oldest restaurant, Domenico’s has built its longevity on friendly service and delicious – as well as fairly idiosyncratic – pizzas. It’s a family place first-and-foremost, as the barrel of lollipops by the entrance attests, but anyone can come here and hide away in a booth with a pizza and salad special (they make a memorable in-house garlic dressing). It’s like a sensory deprivation tank, only with incredible pizza.
Anchoring the limits of Second Street since 1976, you’re more likely to smell Polly’s Gourmet Coffee (4606 E. Second Street) before you reach it. And what a whiff it is. They’re serious about their coffee here, roasted on site, and they serve up a fabulous cup of coffee. Warning: your shirt will be impregnated with the smell for the next day or so but consider it a freebie.
If there had been a place serving crepes in Moulin Rouge, it might have looked a little like La Crêperie Café (4911 E. 2nd Street). The interior is baroque, with gilt-edged mirrors and heavy red drapes. The menu is as you expect: crepes both savoury and sweet as well as a smattering of other dishes like waffles and omelettes for the breakfast service. Sitting outside beneath the red awnings, drinking a bottle of pink bubbly with your ‘Latin Lover’ (the Nutella and fresh banana crepe), you can feel pretty fancy.
Despite having rapidly grown to be a chain with six SoCal locations, Simmzy’s Pub (5271 East 2nd Street) still manages to feel like a one-off. Its lively, open-air vibe perfectly mirrors that of Belmont Shore, and it’s usually standing room only at lunch and dinner time. There’s an excellent, ever-changing selection of craft beers available, while what comes on the plate is a ‘casual diner deluxe’ offering. Think caramelised brussel sprouts, pepper poppers with mango glaze, burgers galore, bonfire grilled fish tacos, and a Bacon Date Pizza with mascarpone and balsamic that is never as good as the first time you try it, but once you have it you’ll always have to re-order it just in case.
Combining casual with classy is Nick’s on 2nd (4901 E. Second St.), your Belmont Shore option for a special night out (or an indulgent brunch). Serving amped up American/Californian classics (think maple-glazed meatloaf or lobster enchiladas) this is comfort food tipping its hat towards haute cuisine. Red meat is also something of a specialty at Nick’s, so seriously eyeball the short ribs benedict or the much raved over filet mignon. If you just fancy a drink, the bar scene at Nick’s is always lively, bordering on raucous late on the weekends. People are happy here.
There are several shops on 2nd Street that pull together the best that local Long Beach artisans have to offer, but Luna (4928 East 2nd Street) rises above them for its eclecticism. It’s a bazaar of curios/or gift shop of dreams (for those willing to spend a little more), offering everything from children’s wall clocks to authentic Day of the Dead dioramas (sourced from across the southern border). If you’re in Long Beach around Christmas time, Luna’s windows light up with its splendid Christmas ornament selection – don’t miss.
It’s telling that Pussy and Pooch (4818 E. 2nd Street) has only two locations: one in the bag-dog epicentre of Downtown LA and here on Second Street. If you’re a dog or cat owner, the boutique offers all sorts of outre accompaniments for your pampered pet, from bow ties to boots for your puss. For those dismissive of such essentials, Pussy and Pooch still enhances the sidewalk’s variety: bringing into Belmont Shore a sub-community of hardcore pet fanciers who seem to compete in overdressing their pets to impress. Seeing a double pram turn around to show two tiny dogs sitting within will haunt you…
For many, the artisan cheese renaissance of the US might have passed you by, but be assured it has happened and is continuing apace. A superb stop to put memories of awful synthetic cheeses to bed is Cheese Addiction (195 Claremont Avenue), tucked just out off of 2nd Street. Boasting a fine array of domestic and international cheeses to try, the assistants are unfailingly helpful when it comes to tastings and happy to point you in the direction of something that’ll tickle your tastebuds. You can also buy a Cheese Addiction emblazoned t-shirt, which for many is simply accurate self-labelling. Purchases also come with a hugely useful receipt that prints out the details of the cheeses you’ve bought, along with tasting notes.
An idiosyncratic kid’s clothes and toys boutique (for children up to seven), Sweet Threads (4812 2nd Street) is a fine stop for choosing out of the ordinary gift items for any tiny tots you know. There’s a vintage section for budding hipster youth, hip brands stocked in-store (while it lasts) for the eye-on-trend parents, while the owner, Shella, also does a much-in-demand clothing line called Pausch. It’s not cheap, but if you’re one of the sensible folk who think that toddlers can look sweet even if garbed in an old potato sack, then come here to check out the books and toys that have been as carefully chosen as the clothes are well stitched.